Category Archives: Book Reviews

All The Bright Places #BookReview

Book Title: All the Bright Places
Author: Jennifer Niven

All the Bright Places had been on my TBR for a long long time. Finally, I got to it over the lockdown.

Quickly, here’s what it’s about

This is the story of Theodore Finch and Violet Markey. Theo Finch is the quintessential misfit, the ‘freak’ of the school while Violet Markey is a passionate writer and one of the most popular girls. While Theo has a history of depression, Violet has recently lost her sister in an accident leading her to withdraw into herself.

The two meet on top of the school bell tower teetering at its edge. Finch talks to Violet, persuading her to get down and in the process saves himself too. Later, they are paired off for a geography assignment ‘Wander’ where they have to discover and document the wonders of the state of Indiana. As they journey through the state, slowly, reluctantly (for Violet) they strike up a friendship as they try to heal each other.

What I thought of it

The story unfolds through two perspectives with Finch and Violet taking up the narrative, in turn, giving us a glimpse of both their perspectives.

Let me first talk about our two protagonists

Finch is fascinating. We get to know early on that he is battling depression/bipolar disorder. He has many personalities hidden away inside him. There’s this thing he does – every few days he takes on a personality and then he proceeds to talk, walk and act as that person would. That had me intrigued. I do get though, that he might have appeared very confusing to people around him, specially to Violet, who once in a wave of frustration demands which one is his ‘real’ self.

Finch obsesses about suicide, researching is, writing about it, even experimenting with it often, constantly on an edge.

He’s a bit of a bully when it comes to Violet. It annoyed me but it works in her favour because he drags her out of her depression, pulling her along on the path to recovery, slowly but surely.

In stark contrast to Finch, Violet’s character seems rather dull. While he hides way his dark periods under a flamboyant devil-may-care attitude, she is quiet and withdrawn. I couldn’t connect with her character; which is strange because I loved the relationship she shared with her sister and I could empathise with her emotions as she tries to come to terms with the latter’s death. Yet, she lacked the layers and depth that Finch had. 

In any case, the more flawed a character the more interesting it is, and Finch has a definite advantage there.

The idea of ‘Wander’

The idea of wandering around your own city or state is charming. I loved the places Theo and Violet discovered. We often take our surroundings, our towns, cities and states for granted. Every young person should try to take up this assignment and rediscover his place of birth, should try to look at it as a tourist would.

Violet’s blog

Violet has a blog, along with her sister, which she abandons after the latter’s death. As she recovers she decides to launch another web-magazine titled Germ that has everything a young adult might need – from fashion and style to counselling and help for mental issues. 

What’s even more fascinating is that the Germ Magazine for young adults really does exist. Taking the idea beyond the book and making it real is fantastic.

Tackling young adult mental health issues

All the Bright Places tackles the issue of mental health among young adults with depth and subtlety. It’s heartbreaking to watch how helpless Finch is in the face of his depression, how desperately he wants to stay ‘awake’. He puts on a cheerful front but he longs to be understood. 

“It’s my experience that people are a lot more sympathetic if they can see you hurting, and for the millionth time in my life I wish for measles or smallpox or some other easily understood disease just to make it easier on me and also on them.”

I hated the near-absence of his mom. I get that she had a lot to deal with in her own personal life but I couldn’t wrap my head around the way she left Finch to his own devices, knowing that he had mental health issues. I was so so sorry for him. It made me sad to watch a smart and intelligent boy having to struggle to stay afloat like he did.

On the contrary, Violet has a very clear advantage in how invested her parents are in her well-being, how clued in they are to her every mood, how they celebrate every small sign of recovery. And that is perhaps why she stands a better chance at recovery.

I have to admit I found the end disappointing. It left me feeling angry and frustrated.

The title of the book

I thought a lot about the title and what it meant to convey. This definitely isn’t a ‘Bright’ book. In fact it’s rather morbid. That said, there are some genuinely warm, happy moments and that is perhaps what the title implies: that all of us have some ‘bright places’ even though darkness might lurk around the edges. Or perhaps it implies Violet’s and Theo’s wanderings and the ‘Bright’ places they encounter along the way. I’d love to hear what you thought if you have read this book.

All the Bright Places: The film

Obviously, I had to go and look up the film after I was done with the book. And obviously, I found it wanting. It was too slow for my liking. I did like Justice Smith, who plays Finch, perhaps because of my bias towards that character. As for Violet, she was even more uninspiring than the one in the book.

Last thought: Not the perfect book to read during a lockdown but if mental health issues intrigue you, you’ll like this one.

The Lemon Tree Cafe #BookReview

Book: The Lemon Tree Cafe
Author: Cathy Bramley

Cathy Bramley is a familiar author. I had read The Plumberry School of Comfort Food and loved it. That’s why it was with a sense of happy anticipation that I started on The Lemon Tree Cafe. I expected a sweet romance with a generous dose of food (going by the title). And I did get that, but was that enough to make it a good read? Do read on to find out.

You might also like The Plumberry School of Comfort Food by the same author.

The Story

Rosie Featherstone is a high-flying social media professional. When she’s asked to airbrush a model’s picture she refuses to do so and quits her job. At a bit of a lose end, she begins to assist her Nonna (that’s her maternal grandmother) who owns a small village cafe. In the process she not only rediscovers her Italian roots but also heals her deepest wound even as she unravels some dark secrets of her Nonna’s past.

What I liked

I’ve already said the book had all my favourite ingredients.

The very setting makes it a winner

The tinkle of bells at the Cafe door announcing a customer, the smell of herbs and coffee and freshly baked cookies, a sunny conservatory full of lemon trees – I could see exactly why it would seem like a safe haven to Rosie.

Then there’s village life with it’s close-knit community

…that’s warm and sweet, the quiet ease of it, where everyone knows everyone, where people accept each other’s quirks. Idyllic, right? Specially after the hustle of Rosie’s city job. I liked the way the community comes together to take on Garden Warehouse, the giant chain of stores that threatens all their businesses. And also how they reach harmony in the end.

And of course there was food

Hot Espresso and Blueberry Crumble Cake, freshly baked Pizza and Panini sandwiches. Delicious!

The side characters were endearing

….though one too many. What’s better, however, was that some of them who were side characters in Plumberry took centre stage here. I love when that happens.

Most importantly, the book attempts to tackle the very relevant concept of consent.

What didn’t work for me

After I finished the book I found out that this was first published as a four-part ebook. I presume some of the hiccups that I found in the storyline resulted from that format. 

Parts of the story that were completely irrelevant to the plot

It seemed like these ideas were put into the narrative but then the author forgot to take them forward leaving them half-baked and hanging. They could have been completely removed without affecting the story.

There was a bit of a scene where Rosie’s sister Lia lashes out at her in a fit of sibling rivalry. There were no indications of it coming on and no indications of it afterwards too. It just seemed unnecessary.

There was another part where Rosie finds two of Nonna’s ‘trusted’ helps stealing from the till. The author does offer some justification but it in no way helped along the narrative. If they did need the money they could have approached Rosie, if not Nonna. However, they go on working at the Cafe as if the incident hadn’t happen.

Lack of consistency in the characters

This is a related issue also probably stemming from the the fact that the book was written in parts. For instance in the early part of the book Nonna is portrayed as absentminded to the point of eccentricity (she was once found asleep on an upturned bucket) but after the first few chapters there’s little indication of this absentmindedness. In fact she seems quite sharp and capable specially towards the end where she takes care for her partner, Stanley.

Too many characters and too many plot lines that ended up diluting the story

Even the romance came in fits and starts because there were just so many other things and people the author needed to carry forward. And that watered down the romance making it sound obligatory.

Oh and here’s my biggest complaint..

Rosie connects with the model, Lucinda Miller, whose picture she had refused to airbrush and in that very first conversation, over that one single phone call, Lucinda shares her life story, her forthcoming project, her deepest insecurities, her doubts and fears. That seemed highly unlikely to me. 

Sigh!

I almost feel sorry for having criticised a book which I actually enjoyed. Perhaps I over-analysed it. In my defence, I have to add that sometimes one might like a book despite its many flaws. Sometimes all that matters is how a book makes you feel. While The Lemon Tree Cafe might not have a life-changing impact it certainly gave me some hours of reading pleasure. And that does count for something.

Last thought: An easy happy read for when you need a break from routine.

Joining the #TBRChallenge2020 hosted by @shalzmojo and @she_booked_it for the prompt ‘a book on food’.

The Plumberry School of Comfort Food #BookReview

Book: The Plumberry School of Comfort Food
Author: Cathy Bramley

First, a confession: I read this book and wrote the review eons ago but forgot to share it here for some reason that I cannot remember, till I stumbled upon it in my drafts. And so here it is, The Plumberry School of Comfort Food.

I found the book at a Books by Weight Sale a few years ago and bought it only for it’s title. So when Shakespeare said ‘What’s in a name’ he really didn’t know what he was talking about. It sounded warm and happy and comforting. And that’s exactly what it turned out to be. The cover is lovely too, isn’t it? Happy and cheerful?

The story

The book is about Verity Bloom who works for an insurance company. She was once an amateur cook and enjoyed making fun Youtube videos with her childhood friend Mimi. When Mimi passes away, Verity loses all interest in cooking and turns into a Prick-and-Ping-Princess, someone who depended on the microwave to do all her cooking. Meanwhile Mimi’s mom Gloria, who had been a food stylist for television (I had no clue that was profession) decides to set up a Cookery School and calls over Verity to help her. Since she’s at a bit of a lose end in her professional as well as her personal life she agrees. That’s where Verity renews her love affair with food.

What I thought of it

This one is a simple feel-good book. Somedays that’s all I have the heart for. For starters I loved the setting – a quaint town called Plumberry. Isn’t that the sweetest of names? The School is wonderful and the cottages in the town, so very inviting.

Watching the women set up that school right from choosing a name to devising courses and planning marketing strategies to pull in the crowd was great fun. Some of the schemes they devised are good enough to be used in a real-life school of cooking, they were that innovative.

I loved the constant debate between the School’s celebrity Chef Tom and Verity about whether food should be serious business or something that spells fun and togetherness. The title gives away the winner but I could see Tom’s point of view too.

The book met another one of my criteria for a good read – a bunch of endearing side characters. There’s a cute little love triangle that keeps you guessing and a bit of a mystery thrown in for good measure.

I give it four stars for delivering on its promise and because I like romances with liberal doses of food and some humour.

I know I’ll be looking out for Cathy Bramley at the next sale.

Last thought: A sweet easy read to curl up with on a rainy day.

10 minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World #BookReview

Book: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World
Author: Elif Shafak

After January’s reading spree February was a month for slowing down. Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds was the perfect pick for the purpose. One cannot open a Shafak and breeze through it. Her books are to be sampled and savoured at leisure.

But before I get carried away by my love for the author let me introduce you to the story.

The story

This is the tale of Tequila Leila – a prostitute in Istanbul. We are introduced to her as her body lies in a dumpster waiting to be found by friends or family.

The story stems from a piece of research that suggests that a person’s brain is active for about 10 minutes after the heart stops beating. 

Each minute of Leila’s time in the dumpster brings a memory.

Fragrance, flavour, sights and sounds translate into memories as she reaches into the depths of her mind to relive moments of her life. We piece together her story through each flashback. More importantly, we get to meet The Five; five of Leila’s friends who constitute the family she could never have.

That makes up the first part of her story – The Mind. There is also a second and third part – The Body and The Soul – that take up the narrative after Leila’s mind stops working.

You might also like The Bastard of Istanbul by the same author.

What I loved

One would imagine a novel that hinges on death would be about death and dying. Contrary to that, the focus of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds remains on love and friendship and the relationships we form throughout our lives. Here’s what I enjoyed about the book

The premise

I absolutely loved it. What a fabulous peg to weave a story! 

The poetic storytelling

While the story or the narrative is the life of a novel, there is also a special kind of charm in the way it is told. And that’s where Shafak excels. Almost every page of the book is a quotable quote.

Sample this one on friendship:

On days when she wallowed in self-pity, her chest cracking open, they (her friends) would gently pull her up and breathe life into her lungs.”

A sensory treat

Shafak’s story-telling stimulates the senses. So potent were her descriptions that the situations are forever tied up in my mind with the smells and sounds just as they were in Leila’s. The fragrance of cardamom coffee, the smell of sugar-and-lemon, the aromatic lamb stew as also the taste of watermelon and that of soil in her mouth – they will all remain with me forever.

The narrative

The first part was unputdownable as I followed Leila’s journey through the young innocence of childhood to her stormy and traumatic growing up years and then as she lands into prostitution. The individual stories of her five friends kept me glued. While I didn’t much like Part 2, the third part was beautiful, though a little short. 

The treatment

I loved Leila’s portrayal. I liked that despite the tough situations life threw at her, she didn’t turn cynical or bitter. If anything, she valued love and friendship ever more and made warm heartfelt connections. Which is why her friends are ready to go to any lengths for her.

Most of all, there was Istanbul

No one, absolutely no one, can describe Istanbul the way Shafak does.  Her love shines through each page even as she makes no attempt to camouflage its warts. Istanbul comes alive as a city with a million shades, innocent yet heartless, a city changing and growing constantly.

Istanbul was an illusion. A magician’s trick gone wrong… In truth, there was no Istanbul. There were multiple Istanbuls – struggling, competing, clashing, each perceiving that, in the end, only one could survive

Quotes like these are liberally sprinkled, often innocuously placed in the narrative. They build a picture of the city without you even being aware of it. If I ever go to Istanbul, it will be Shafak’s version I’d be looking for. Here’s another quote I loved:

This city always surprised her; moments of innocence were hidden in its darkest corners, moments so elusive that by the time she realised how pure they were, they would be gone.

What could have been better

The ‘friend-list’

That’s my first gripe with the book – that her friend list, the ‘water family’,  seemed contrived. It was almost as if Shafak was collecting one misfit of each kind to bring together to the group.

The individual stories…

… were too too short. I’ve said earlier I loved each of them and I wanted to know more about each of them. Some, like Humeyra, got a very raw deal. Her picture was incomplete, truncated somehow.

The bonding

I would have liked Shafak to spend a few more pages establishing the camaraderie between the friends. I got their deep connection with Leila but they didn’t come together as a group for me. And that was crucial since they were working together as a team in the second part of the book.

The second part

This part, The Body, was to me, the weakest bit of the book. Moreso because the first part was so beautifully written. It comes as a rude shock waking one up from a poetic bit of writing to something almost caricaturish as her friends attempt to give her a befitting burial. A book like this didn’t deserve it.

Last thought: Despite the weaknesses, I’d say Read it.

Joining the #TBRChallenge2020 hosted by @shalzmojo and @she_booked_it for the prompt ‘a book gifted to you’. This one came from my dear friend and an exceptionally generous Santa, Shalini.

City of Girls #BookReview

Book: City of Girls
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert

This is my second book by Elizabeth Gilbert. I read Eat Pray Love and I didn’t much care for it. I then tried liking the film but I just about managed to get through it only because Julia Roberts is one of my absolute favourite actresses.

So it was with much trepidation that I picked up City of Girls, on the assurance that it wasn’t like her previous work at all. That did prove accurate, for this one really is very different.

The story

19- year-old Vivian Morris arrives in New York to live with her aunt Peg who owns and runs Lily Playhouse, a theatre company. From her small town existence, Vivian is pushed into this new exciting world peopled with amazingly colourful characters – actors, script writers, musicians and the most magnificent showgirls. Being an extraordinarily talented seamstress she fits right in. She falls in love with New York and with this new life of hers. She cannot have enough of it. Every night she traipses through it in a haze of men and alcohol savouring every moment of this new found freedom far from her parents and her small town upbringing.

Then one night she makes a mistake. A mistake so huge that nothing can set it right. Not only does it cause a massive scandal but also changes her life completely.

It brings to Vivian, a maturity as well, and a new understanding of herself and of what she wants from life.

What I liked

The book traces Vivian’s journey through life. In that sense it can be termed a bit of a coming-of-age book, only it goes much beyond, following Vivian into old age. It is also a bit of historical fiction with the backdrop of WWII during part of the narrative. Most of all it describes New York City and its growth over the years in fascinating detail.

However, for me, the best part of the book was the Lily Playhouse. Quite like Vivian I was taken in by running of a theatre company and the people who inhabited the world. Each character big and small added to the setting making it come alive, while retaining a special place for herself/himself. 

I loved the bits where Vivian scouted for clothes turning them into beautiful creations and the way the entire team at Lily Playhouse comes together to put on a hit play. I loved Aunt Peg. New York of the 1940s was enchanting and I could see exactly why Vivian was so enamoured of it.

What could have been better

The first half of the book, though fast paced had pages and pages of descriptions of Vivian’s night-outs and that grew tedious – sex and alcohol and then some more sex, till I grew tired of it. The book slows down in the second half and then it tends to drag.

The saddest part though was that I couldn’t warm up to Vivian. Oh there were many pluses to her character – she was spunky and adventurous and a good enough friend, but she was annoyingly immature. Perhaps that was the way her character was supposed to be in the beginning but I didn’t grow to care for her even in her grown-up avatar. Her obsession with having a ‘good time’ continued to irk me, quite similar to Liz of Eat Pray Love.

I couldn’t even connect with the great romance/friendship Vivian finds towards the end of the book.

All in all Gilbert’s heroines don’t seem to be on my list of favourites.

Joining the #TBRChallenge2020 hosted by @shalzmojo and @she_booked_it for the ‘free hit’ prompt.

Last thought: A racy read yet pretty meh. Avoidable.

The Lunar Chronicles #BookReview

So I am done with the Lunar Chronicles. Finally! What a ride it has been! A tiny bit lengthy towards the end but all in all a fun enjoyable adrenaline pumping adventure.

For those of you who haven’t heard of this series Lunar is a set of four young adult futuristic novels – Cinder, Scarlet, Cress and Winter – loosely based on four fairy tales.

I was done with the first book last year but I read the other three in quick succession over a week. In my mind this is a single long story, which is why it makes sense to review the books together. I promise to keep it short.

First, here’s what the books are about:

The Setting

The stories are set in the future. Earth is tormented by a plague that threatens to wipe off the entire population.

Meanwhile, the Moon has been colonised, is called Luna and is inhabited by Lunars. Peace between the Earthens and Lunars is a tenuous thing with the powerful Lunar queen wanting to take over Earth. With that in mind she is looking for an alliance with the Prince (later King) Kaito of the Eastern Commonwealth (China). Lunars are adept in the art of mind control which makes them formidable enemies. There is also a dead/missing princess believed to be the true heir to the Lunar throne.

Cinder

The story begins with Cinder (obviously Cinderella), who is a Cyborg (part human part machine) and lives with her adoptive mother and two step sisters in New Beijing. She’s an exceptionally talented mechanic and meets Prince Kai when he comes to her to get his android repaired. Then on, secrets are revealed and Cinder has a confrontation with the Lunar queen resulting in her imprisonment and subsequent escape.

Scarlet

The book opens with Cinder, who’s on the run along with an accomplice from the prison, Thorne. The story then moves to a small farm in France where we get to meet Scarlet Benoit. Her tale meshes seamlessly with that of Cinder as they get ready to take on the Lunar Queen.

Cress

Cinder is still on the run and is slowly building a team to help her. Cress, a Lunar, computer whiz, joins her in this book. 

Winter 

This last one is the culmination of the series and we meet our last protagonist Princess Winter, step daughter of the Lunar Queen. The book spirals towards a showdown with between Cinder and the Lunar Queen and the inevitable happily ever after – just as a young adult adventure series should.

What I loved

Books set in the future are my newest obsession. Needless to say that I enjoyed the setting of future earth as also Lunar colonisation which gave a Hunger Games kind of a feel but then the story was so very different that it didn’t get tedious.

The fairy tale twist

I adored the way the fairy tales were integrated in the stories. Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Snow White – I loved them all.

The characters

Were the bestest part of the books. They were all adorable and very differently so. If I had to choose a single strongest feature that endeared the series to me, it would have to be the characters. And if I had one complaint, it would be that some of them didn’t get enough space in the book, specially Princess Winter.

The humour

Humour, if done well, can uplift most genres of story-telling and Meyer uses it so well here. When the narrative begin to lag, and there are bits when they do that, it’s the humour that carries the story through. (Thorne and Iko remain my favourite characters, for that reason. You’ll know what I mean if/when you read the books).

The issues thrown up

The books talk about discrimination, about cyborgs being look down upon, about the transience of physical beauty and about the stupidity of judging people based on stereotypes. All pertinent issues in the current times.

What could have been better

I have no complaints from the first two books. 

Cinder was absolutely smashing. It did a wonderful job of setting the scene and building the story, leaving the reader at a cliff-hangar, craving for more.

Scarlet was good too with the introduction of endearing new characters.

Cress, however, grew tedious in bits, a case of ‘too many twists spoil the plot’. You just wanted to skim through the pages fast and get to the inevitable end.

Winter, despite being a mammoth read, didn’t have much about Princess Winter. Also, the layout of Luna and the Lunar palace, described in much detail during the chase sequences, grew cumbersome. It had me completely lost and I zoned out in a haze of doors and archways and escalators of the Lunar palace. Perhaps it should have been broken down into two separate books – one on Winter and one to gather together the grand finale.

That said, I’d definitely recommend the series. It’s a glimpse into a new world, coupled with the fairy tale twist and a page turning story.

Joining the #TBRChallenge2020 hosted by @shalzmojo and @she_booked_it. And with this I’m done with three prompts:
A Book that’s part of a series
A Book set in the past or the future
A YA Book

Last thought: A must for readers of fantasy fiction.

The Crimson Meniscus #BookReview

Book: The Crimson Meniscus
Author: Jason Werbeloff

The Crimson Meniscus is a set of six dystopian sci-fi short stories.

Before I go on to tell you what the book is about let me talk a little bit about the setting. So sometime in the future there’s a place called The Bubble protected by and separated from the rest of the world by a force field. The Bubble is the land of plenty with wine fountains and automated hover cabs where the inhabitants live a luxurious life. 

Then there’s The Gutter, home to the poor and destitute who struggle for survival. They are beholden to the state for their very existence. Their organs are routinely ‘harvested’ for the inhabitants of The Bubble, and replaced by low-quality generic ‘printed’ organs. The Bubble isn’t even visible to the Gutter inhabitants without special glasses.

The divide is complete.

It is in this setting that Jason Werbeloff weaves his stories – dark, twisted and gory.

What I liked

I like books set in an alternate universe. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. I find it intriguing how an author sets out to build a whole different world limited only by his imagination and yet manages to make it plausible for the reader. Here he does it deftly, meticulously and I was drawn right in.

Also, the stories have unexpectedly twisted ending. They talk about how the world is being taken over by technology and the dangers therein. They talk about the frightening results of meddling with the natural order of things. I specially liked that most of them present the reader with a moral dilemma of sorts with grey areas that keep one trying to figure the right from the wrong.

Most of all, even beyond what the individual stories talk about, the book brings home in horrifying reality how terrible the world can become if we shut ourselves in our own small secure ‘bubbles’ of existence. In the alternate universe created by the author the rich struggle with problems that come with privilege, problems of excess – a lung gone bad, a heart that’s dying out. They proceed to buy organs without a twinge, without for a moment wondering what happens to the people from whom the organs are harvested. They are completely indifferent to the people from the Gutter and unaware of their own privilege. Because, to them, that’s just the way life is.

That was my biggest takeaway from the book, a shocking realisation of what the world can become if the privileged continue to apathetically cordon themselves off from the underprivileged.

The one thing I didn’t quite like ..

….was the gore and I skipped paragraphs to avoid it. That said, I have to add that I have an unusually low tolerance for it and I do get that it was perhaps required in order to shock and appal the reader. And it did that with success. 

Joining the #TBRChallenge2020 hosted by @shalzmojo and @she_booked_it. This is my book for Prompt 1 – a book from a genre I usually avoid.

Last thought: If you like dark, twisted dystopian stories, this one’s for you.